Who Loves Ya, Baby?
In South Bend, they’re nuts about the Nanooks. Up in Kalamazoo, they’re crazy about the Falcons. Everyone in Columbus loves the Lakers.
The RedHawks are lucky. The outpouring of love from both Ann Arbor and East Lansing is overwhelming.
It’s the home stretch, and as much as each coach likes to say that his team controls its own destiny, a favor here and there doesn’t hurt.
Three teams–Michigan, Michigan State, and Northern Michigan–have clinched home ice for the opening round of the CCHA playoffs.
Additionally, four teams–Lake Superior, Notre Dame, Ferris State, and Nebraska-Omaha–have each clinched a playoff berth.
One team–Alaska-Fairbanks–is playing to spoil, since the Nanooks bow out after their series with Alaska-Anchorage next weekend.
That leaves four teams–Miami, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, and Ohio State–in the running for those final three playoff spots. For those four squads, there are no guarantees.
Playoff races make for strange bedfellows.
There are five tiebreakers to determine league standings in the CCHA:
1. Most league wins.
2. Head-to-head competition.
3. Goal differential.
4. Record vs. other CCHA teams.
5. Coin toss.
The season shakes out like this:
Michigan Can take the league, and finish no lower than fourth place. The Wolverines would love to see Notre Dame have a stellar final regular-season weekend. They may also want either Lake Superior or Northern Michigan to finish up strong.
Michigan State Can take the league, and finish no lower than fourth. The Spartans are BG fans next weekend, and like their archrivals down the road will want either Lake or Northern to have a good finish, depending on how each does this weekend.
Northern Michigan Can take the league, and finish no lower than fourth. Northern Michigan probably wants Michigan State to win Friday, and Wildcat fans will watch very closely what happens with the Bowling Green-Michigan series as well as the Notre Dame-Michigan State series next weekend.
Lake Superior If Michigan State wins Friday and then loses out, and if the Wolverines lose out, and the Wildcats lose out, an Lake wins out, the Lakers take the regular-season title. Next week’s series between Northern and Lake could be a doozy.
The Lakers can finish no lower than seventh.
Notre Dame The Irish have 28 points and four remaining in the balance, with this week off. They could conceivably catch Northern Michigan, but if that were to happen, they’d probably still be behind Lake Superior, since Notre Dame would need help from the Lakers to catch the Wildcats.
If the Irish and the Wildcats end the season tied for points, Northern would still be ahead of the Irish. Northern has 14 wins; the most the Irish can garner is 13, and the first tiebreaker is conference wins.
The net result is that the Irish finish no higher than fourth, but are likely to finish no higher than fifth. They can finish no lower than ninth.
Ferris State The Bulldogs, two points behind the Irish, also have the week off. They can finish as high as fourth place.
The Bulldogs cannot catch Michigan, Michigan State, or Northern. They can, however, catch Lake Superior by the slimmest of margins.
If Ferris State takes two from Western next weekend, and Lake and Notre Dame lose out, Ferris State and Lake State will be tied for points–and league wins and head-to-head. However, the Bulldogs hold the tiebreaker on goals, having outscored the Lakers 11-10 in four games this season.
The Bulldogs can finish no lower than 10th.
Nebraska-Omaha They’re going nuts in the heartland, and why the heck not?
The Mavericks have 25 points and two games remaining. They can finish fifth and catch home ice, and will finish no lower than 10th, a formidable feat for their first full season of league-affiliated play.
Nebraska plays two at Fairbanks this weekend. Four points would put them–for this week at least–ahead of both Notre Dame and Ferris State, since both of those teams have the week off.
Four points would give UNO 29 points. If Ferris State were to finish with 29 points–earning a win and tie from the Broncos next weekend–the Bulldogs would have the tie breaker over the Mavericks because they’d have one more conference win than would UNO.
If Notre Dame wins, this is all moot, as the Irish would have 30 points and UNO couldn’t possibly catch them. However, if Notre Dame gets one single point from Michigan State next week–giving the Irish 29 points–the Mavs have the tiebreaker by virtue of league wins.
Are you all taking notes? There will be a quiz, you know.
Miami The RedHawks have not yet secured a playoff spot. But believe it or not, Miami can finish as high as fourth place.
With four games left worth a possible eight points, the RedHawks are seven points out of fourth. If Miami wins out, straight up, and Lake Superior loses out all the way, Miami hosts.
If Miami and Lake Superior end tied in points, the ‘Hawks get the tiebreaker through league wins–which they’ll need to catch Lake in the first place.
Miami can finish as low as 11th. As for where else Miami can finish in between, that’s a nice little math project for you.
Bowling Green The Falcons are two points behind the RedHawks, and are also playing to play, so to speak.
BG can finish as high as fifth and as low as 11th. Seven points behind Notre Dame, the current fifth-place team, the Falcons would need to call in a lot of favors to host the playoffs.
Bowling Green would have the tiebreaker over Notre Dame should they tie in points (league wins).
Western Michigan The Broncos hold onto 10th place in the league by four points, and are guaranteed at least an 11th-place finish. Western can finish as high as sixth.
Ohio State The Buckeyes have 15 points, four behind Western and that precious 10th spot. Believe it or not, Ohio State does not even need to win out to leap ahead of Western, but the Buckeyes do need five points–and four Western losses.
There are a couple of different ways in which the Bucks and Broncos could end the season tied for points, with a couple of different possible outcomes.
If Ohio State and Western end the season each tied with 19 points, each team would have eight league wins, and Western would have the tie breaker because the Broncos own the head-to-head against Ohio State.
However, in the strangest "what if" scenario left in the playoff race, if the Broncos and Buckeyes end tied with 21 points each, and the Buckeyes earn the six points they need via wins while the Broncos get those point with two ties, OSU gets the nod–with one more league win than the Broncos, even though the Broncs beat the Bucks twice this season.
OSU could finish as high as eighth.
Alaska-Fairbanks The Nanooks finish 12th, no matter how you look at it.
Someone pass the aspirin.
High Drama in the Low End
There are four teams whose playoff fates are undecided, and each has four games to go.
One team plays two of the other teams twice.
Three teams are in Ohio. As I’ve said repeatedly, sometimes it’s just good to be me.
Last week, Western Michigan’s Jim Culhane summed up every coach’s philosophy when he said that his team controlled its own destiny.
Last week, Culhane and the Broncos split with Niagara, much to nearly everyone’s displeasure in the league. Every coach from every team in the league likes to see the CCHA do well against nonconference opponents; every coach in this league would prefer that a nonconference opponent not affiliated with one of the established four leagues be eliminated from postseason NCAA consideration.
But I digress.
The Broncos had to watch while Ohio State gained two points on them by beating Ferris State once, and Western had to be sweating when the Bucks nearly did it a second time Saturday night.
You’d think that teams 8, 9, and 10 would simply be worried about making the playoffs, since nothing has been decided. But that isn’t the case at all. Each wants to finish as high as possible, and the idea of losing a playoff spot isn’t something Miami, Bowling Green, or Western seems to be entertaining.
"I’d be thinking about it if we didn’t win Sunday," says Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. The RedHawks split with Nebraska last weekend, dropping a 3-1 decision Friday before winning 6-3 Sunday.
"That was kind of do-or-die. We’ve controlled our own destiny from the start. If Ohio State loses one [remaining game] or we win one, we clinch a playoff spot."
Blasi is not only optimistic about his team’s chances–especially since the RedHawks and the Buckeyes meet for two games the final week of the regular season–but he’s determined. Miami suffered another season-ending injury, this time to Evan Cheverie.
With yet one more big player out of the line-up–don’t forget that Jason Deskins and Gregor Krajnc have been gone a while–Blasi is understandably concerned, but not overly so.
"When people have gone down before, we’ve responded well."
Miami faces Northern Michigan at home this weekend, a chilling prospect. But Blasi is quick to point out that his team is resilient in all sorts of ways, not just after losing key players to injury.
"We’ve had to pull up our socks and stay together, and we had a big layoff at Christmas, which I thought hurt us. Then we go to Michigan and lose two. Most teams would’ve packed it in, and we beat Ferris State the next week.
"Then we dropped two to Lake. Again, most teams would’ve packed it in, and we came back to beat Fairbanks. Then two weeks ago we lost two to Bowling Green–then a third in a row to Nebraska–and we came back to win.
"Our goal from the beginning of the season has been to be playing our best hockey come playoff time, and I think we’re doing that."
Last weekend, after being spanked 10-3 in two games against Bowling Green, the RedHawks split with the Mavericks, losing 3-1 and winning 6-3. Nick Jardine (10-8–18) had the lone goal in the loss, and added another in the win. Pat Leahy (14-15–29) had two in the win, while Anthony Donskov (2-1–3), Jake Ortmeyer (2-3–5), and Ken Marsch (3-1–4) also had goals in the victory.
The often overlooked RedHawk with the best name in the league, Dustin Whitecotton, (8-22–30) had three assists in the win.
Andy Marsch (.884 SV%) was the goalie of record in the loss, while David Burleigh (.876 SV%) notched the win. Each made 27 saves.
Up the road a ways, Bowling Green head coach Buddy Powers says his team is playing for home ice.
"Our guys are still thinking that we’ve got a shot. We’ve played well in every game, outside of the one Miami game, since Christmas.
"We’ve given it an honest effort."
Bowling Green dropped a 5-3 game to Notre Dame before coming back to tie the Irish 1-0. Tyler Masters (.896 SV%) was the goalie of record in the game during which the less-than-overpowering Irish offense scored an uncharacteristic five goals.
Powers says that at least two of the goals were the kind that any goalie would want to have back, and the last was an empty-netter. He also stresses that Notre Dame netminder Tony Zasowski (.913 SV%) "was phenomenal" at the other end. According to Powers, Masters is still the go-to guy in BG.
Junior Shawn Timm (.939 SV% in seven league games) earned the tie, stopping 30 Irish shots. Ryan Fultz (9-6–15) had the late goal to tie the game.
"The games were intense," says Powers. "High tempo. Everything you wanted in a hockey game was there, except that we only wound up with a point."
Powers says the Falcons just are "not catching any breaks" this season, but adds, "As long as we don’t relax, we should be fine."
The third Ohio team, counted out by most fans but very much alive–at least through this weekend–is Ohio State.
Without any swoon from Western Michigan, the Buckeyes need seven points to surpass the Broncos in the standings. Any number of scenarios are possible for Ohio State to sneak in.
But don’t tell them that they’re simply playing for 10th place. Captain Ryan Jestadt says the Buckeyes are playing to finish as high as they can. If that’s 10th place, fine–but if it’s higher, even better.
"Right now, we want to win all of our games. We’ll fall in where we fall in.
"We had a bad start that really didn’t help us. But you have to be optimistic. The guys are optimistic now."
The Buckeyes have reason to be optimistic. Since that bad start, which included an 11-game losing streak, not a series has passed during which Ohio State didn’t take at least a point, including a tie with Michigan in Yost. Since mid-November, the Buckeyes have not had a losing streak of more than two games, and they’re 8-7-4 since their 11-game losing streak.
Three of those losses were one-goal losses, two in overtime.
During that stretch, goalie Ray Aho (.910 SV%) has boasted a .931 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average. This is a netminder whose stats had him anchoring the league for much of the first half of the season, with a save percentage hovering around 88%.
Last weekend, Ohio State split with Ferris State on the road, winning 3-1 before losing 4-3. The Buckeyes blew a two-goal lead in the capper, allowing three goals within two minutes in the third period.
"We’ve been playing well," says Jestadt. "It’s the story of our season. We can’t get the goals we need."
The Buckeyes are being outscored 77-46 in league play, and in the third period of play, the Bucks are outscored 26-10.
Only one Buckeye, Eric Meloche (10-10–20), has goals in the double digits in conference play for Ohio State.
It’s not exactly something to write home about, and Jestadt admits, "It’s a tough spot to be in," but Ohio State has yet to pack it in. They’re too busy having fun.
"That’s the thing. You’ve got to keep it fun. No matter what happens, you’ve got to keep it fun. When it stops being fun, you’re not going to win much."
Fans of the three Ohio teams know that the Ohio Cup is on the line. The Cup is awarded each year by the Buckeye Sports Bulletin to the Ohio team with the best record against its in-state opponents.
Play these next two weeks will decide the cup. So far, Bowling Green is 3-3-0, Miami is 3-3-0, and Ohio State is 2-2-0. BG and Miami will not face each other again this season. All of Ohio State’s remaining games are against Bowling Green and Miami.
The Game of the Week Is the Grudge of the Week
Michigan State (22-9-2, 17-7-1 CCHA) at Michigan (22-7-3, 17-5-3 CCHA) Friday, 7:35 p.m., Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, MI
Yes, the two teams meet again Saturday in Detroit. But so what? This is a conference game, and that isn’t.
OK, so Saturday can be the Grudge, Friday the Game.
We’re clearly splitting hairs here. Sort of like what happens when these two teams meet anywhere.
Michigan head coach Red Berenson says, "It just seems like whenever we play, there seems like there’s a lot on the line, even moreso this year. Some people could say we’re playing for first place."
Some people, including Spartan head coach Ron Mason.
"From the perspective that we have a chance to play for the conference title, this game is exciting," says Mason.
Mason has reason to sound excited. By his own admission, it didn’t appear that the Spartans would have a shot at the regular-season title just a few weeks ago.
"We were playing well. It wasn’t like we weren’t playing well. It’s not that we weren’t working. We weren’t just very lucky in front of either net. We were unlucky in front of our own net, and in front of the other, and that’s a bad combination.
"That’s something you can’t control. The puck would go over our stick, and we’ve had goals called back. A lot of it is bounces."
Since early January–beginning with a 2-0 home loss to Michigan–the Spartans are 7-4-2. Two of those losses were by a goal, two by two. But MSU brings a four-game win streak into this series.
"We’re pretty happy as a team to be in the position we’re in because a few weeks ago we couldn’t get anything going. I think we’re back on track."
In February, the Wolverines are 3-1-2, the two ties coming in Northern Michigan last weekend.
"We approached the games at Northern as if they were big games," says Berenson.
Like every team in the league, Michigan had its moment or two of weakness, especially when goaltender Josh Blackburn (.921 SV%) was out, a period of time when the Wolverines lost–gasp!–five games.
"He makes a difference," says Berenson. "We went through a stretch when we weren’t scoring…then our power play has been inconsistent.
"He’s our number-one goalie, and when he did come back his first game back was the shutout against Michigan State. That’s a statement, and it made an impression on our team, especially the younger players who hadn’t seen him all season."
And Michigan does have a number of those younger players. Berenson says he plays six freshman forwards, and two rookie defenders. "That’s been a key to our success, our younger players playing well. We have a better game right now than we did a month ago."
One of the more interesting aspects of this series is the battle the league scoring title. With 14 goals and 27 assists, Michigan’s Mike Comrie leads the league in points, followed closely by Spartan Shawn Horcoff, who has 39 points (7G, 32A).
Comrie is at +18, Horcoff at +17.
Each player has one shorthanded goal. Comrie has a hat trick. Comrie has four power-play tallies to Horcoff’s one, and two game-winners to Horcoff’s one. Horcoff has two empty netters, while Comrie has none.
Comrie also leads Horcoff in another category: penalty minutes. Comrie has been tagged for 67, while Horcoff has 36. One could argue, however, that Comrie’s total in this category is merely a reflection of Michigan’s overall victimization.
(And each of these players can learn something from Western Michigan’s David Gove, third in the league in points with 14-20–34, and just 16 penalty minutes. Of course, Gove is -5, but niceness counts, too.)
Both coaches say that there’s little new under the sun when it comes to this series.
"I’ve been there so many times, I don’t think anything’s going to change," says Mason. "I think both teams are more evenly matched this year. Maybe whatever happens on the ice will be a result of that."
"It’s always a battle," says Berenson.
Take a look at this info, some of which is actually useful:
The Wolverines lead the all-time series 120-103-7, and 61-41-1 in Ann Arbor. Michigan also leads the series in 14-1-0 in Joe Louis Arena, but MSU has won the last five at the Joe.
The Spartan seniors are 9-3-1 against the Wolverines.
Ten of the last 12 games have been decided by a goal.
Michigan leads the league with goals per game, averaging 4.08. MSU is fourth, with 3.00.
The Spartans allow a mere 1.48 goals per game (lowest in the league), to Michigan’s 2.24 (third).
Michigan State’s power play (20.3%) leads the league, to Michigan’s 19.3% (fourth).
Michigan State’s penalty kill is also tops in the conference, successful an astounding 93% of the time. Michigan is fourth at 85.5%.
Michigan averages 26.76 minutes in the box per game compared to Michigan State’s 18.72.
Ron Mason played against Red Berenson in Berenson’s final game as a collegian, the 1962 NCAA consolation game. Berenson’s Wolverines beat Mason’s St. Lawrence Saints.
MSU junior defenseman Brody Brandstatter is the nephew of Jim Brandstatter, the radio voice of Michigan football.
Wolverine freshman J.J. Swistak is the younger brother of Spartan junior Mike Swistak.
MSU goaltender Joe Blackburn and Wolverine netminder Josh Blackburn are not related.
While Saturday’s game doesn’t count for conference play, the all-important Pairwise is at stake. "Both of ours will undoubtedly go up," says Mason, "because we’re playing each other."
Picks: Something tells me that the Wolverines will take this one, but I’m going to say that the Spartans return the favor from earlier this season. Michigan State 3-1 in Yost, 3-1 at the JLA
I have received some interesting questions from readers in these past few weeks, and now seems as good a time as any to answer.
Yes, I do have my head up my butt.
Yes, I am a moron.
Yes, I am suffering from sleep deprivation.
Yes, I occasionally drink beer.
Yes, I am a certified psychic.
Yes, I am an Ohio State fan.
Yes, I am a Ferris State fan.
Yes, I am a Bowling Green fan.
Yes, I am a Michigan State fan.
Yes, I am a Michigan fan.
Moxy, and she’s constantly in trouble. A complete recover from the poisoning episode, but she’s in need of rescue daily.
Tae kwon do, not tae bo.
Thanks, but I’m not quite ready to settle down yet.
Execrec is not my father. He’s not my husband either. And he’s not my alter-ego.
An older Jetta. Why do you ask?
Congratulations to Bryan and Irmgard, who welcomed Charlotte Jane into the world on February 23.
And Ferris State assistant coach Drew Famulak will be faced with a dilemma if the Bulldogs participate in the play-in game. Famulak and his wife, Cheryl, are expecting their first child, who should make an entrance the week of March 13.